NEW YORK — Since terrorists attacked this country in the name of Islam nearly a year ago, America's association with the world's secondlargest religion has become a cauldron of seemingly contrary trends.
E President Bush says “Islam is peace,” a great religion of more than a billion people worldwide, which al Qaeda tried to hijack on Sept. 11. Yet the Rev. Franklin Graham, who gave the invocation at Bush's inauguration, criticizes Islam as “a very evil and wicked religion.”
E The image of American Muslims is actually better than it was before Sept. 11, according to one survey. Yet many Muslim leaders say it feels as if Bush's war on terrorism targets their faith, making them suspects in non-Muslim eyes.
E Books on Islam are hot. But American Muslims complain they often sensationalize theological concepts such as “jihad,” which many popular authors define as “holy war” when it could also be used in reference to a Muslim's lifelong spiritual “struggle.”
E The U.S. State Department has launched a public diplomacy campaign to “win the hearts and minds” of the “Islamic world” through Web sites, videos and Arabic radio programs targeting Muslim twentysomethings scrutinized in focus groups. But the strategy hasn't overcome the anti-American resentment found on the “Arab street.”
In short, America's relationship with Islam, never easy, has become more jumbled since Sept. 11. And with a U.S. military attack on the Islamic country of Iraq under serious consideration, it might get even messier.
“What I'm seeing now is not so much a love-hate as hate-hate and that's what worries me the most,” said Akbar Ahmed, professor of Islamic studies at American University in Washington and a columnist for Religion News Service. “By hate-hate I mean there are few people in the Muslim world who see anything good about America anymore.”
In February, the Gallup Organization released polls from nine Islamic countries. Respondents in all nine — including those considered American allies — viewed the United States more unfavorably than favorably. American soldiers freed Kuwait from Iraqi invaders in the 1991 Gulf War, yet only 28% of Kuwaitis polled held favorable views. In Saudi Arabia, a major trading partner, only 16% perceived the United States favorably.
Why Do They Hate Us?
This raises the often-asked post-Sept. 11 question: “Why do they hate us?” The answers are many and complex.
One, advanced by Princeton University's Bernard Lewis, argues that Islamic antagonism is rooted in centuries of history, hostility and feelings of inferiority toward the “infidels” of Western civilization, whom Muslims once ruled.
Lewis concludes in his new book, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, that if Muslims can abandon victimhood and join in a common creative endeavor, they can reclaim the stature that Islamic civilization enjoyed in the Middle Ages.
“The choice is their own,” he writes.
But Lewis’ critics, led by Columbia University's Edward Said, accuse the historian of relying on abstractions such as “the West” and “Islam” as if there were a cartoonlike battle between the virtuous and the villainous. A more helpful approach, Said writes, would think in terms of “powerful and powerless communities.”
Other Muslim scholars argue that a primary source of contemporary antipathy is an inconsistent and unjust U.S. foreign policy, punctuated by the superpower's support of Israel in the escalating Middle East conflict.
Reactions to Sept. 11 have been particularly challenging for American Muslims, whose estimated numbers range from a low of 3 million to a high of 7 million.
In the days following the attacks, some feared public opinion would scapegoat Muslims as it did Japanese-Americans after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.
There were early incidents of violence, and there have been ongoing reports of harassment. But the majority of Americans seem to have distinguished between the Islamic beliefs of fellow U.S. citizens and those of al Qaeda's Osama bin Laden, who, speaking to Muslims worldwide by videotape, said, “God has blessed a group of vanguard Muslims, the forefront of Islam, to destroy America.”
A March survey found that Americans’ image of their Muslim countrymen had actually improved.
Conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, the national poll showed that 54% viewed Muslim Americans favorably. In spring 2001, the favorability rating was 45%.
In the wake of Sept. 11, relations between the Catholic Church and Muslim leaders have solidified and grown, Catholic News Service reported Aug. 28. Catholics and Muslims for years have engaged in dialogue about issues of common concern, noted John Borelli, associate director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
Muzammil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Center of Orange County, Calif., said “from the first day” the Catholic Church has been supportive of the mainstream majority of Muslims who do not interpret the Prophet Mohammed's teachings as encouraging terrorism. In fact, the course for interreligious relations followed by the Catholic-Muslim dialogue should be a model for other faiths, Siddiqi said.
The improvement in the public perception of Muslims heartens Saif Abdul-Rahman, a spokesman for Dar Al Hijrah mosque of Falls Church, Va. He also applauds the president's praise of Islam and his plea to separate bin Laden from the peaceful approach of most Muslim Americans.
But he decries Bush's signing of the U.S. Patriot Act last October, giving sweeping new powers to law enforcement and intelligence agencies. As Abdul-Rahman sees it, the government now has a dangerous license that it has already used to harass mosques and Islamic charities and deny Muslims their civil liberties.
“The American Muslim community is in a situation right now in which it feels like it has to prove its innocence because of the immediate presumption of guilt,” Abdul-Rahman said. “This is scary.”
Sheik Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, chairman of the Washingtonbased Islamic Supreme Council of America, expresses a different view.
“I have to say that Muslims in America, especially the immigrants, complain too much when back in many of their homelands they are not allowed to even open their mouths in criticism [of the government],” Kabbani said.
“We have been discriminated against, of course,” he said. “But that's to be expected after a situation like Sept. 11.”